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Anthony Gambrill | Jamaica in Britain: The 10-year-old millionaire

Published:Friday | October 20, 2017 | 12:00 AMAnthony Gambrill

In 1661, just six years after the English captured Jamaica, a young Peter Beckford came to the island seeking his fortune. Few records of his early years have survived but Jamaican historian Frank Cundall claims that he accompanied Henry Morgan on the assault of Panama in 1671.

He was to found a dynasty of land owners and slave owners with enormous wealth. One 10-year-old Beckford a hundred years later inherited a million pounds – worth around 80 million pounds in today’s currency. Another was to be incarcerated in a London prison for having provided security for a friend who was to lose everything in a hurricane. Yet another became three times lord mayor of London.

It was Peter Beckford Jr who began to make his father’s expectations a reality. Over the years, he was to extend his family’s landholdings to 17 sugar estate and five livestock pens, mainly in Clarendon and Westmoreland and even owned a trading vessel. Like his father, he was to become a member of the House of Assembly after having completed his education and legal training in Britain. He was a powerful and influential politician, but was cursed with a violent temper.  He killed a 60-year-old judge but used his influence to suffer no more than a formal censure.

Ironically, it was an incident in the house of assembly that led to his father’s untimely death.  When a discussion became overheated, Peter Jr, at the time speaker of the House, attempted to adjourn the session. Several members barred the door, drew their swords and forced him to return to his seat. Peter Sr, being in the building and on hearing his son’s cries for help, rushed to his aid. He either fell down a long staircase, sustaining fatal injuries, or suffered a stroke from which he subsequently died.

Peter Jr married Bashua Hering, the daughter of another planter, and had 12 children. When he died in 1735, his will revealed that he was owner or part owner of 16 plantations and 1,814 slaves, in addition to having property in England and was owed large sums of money. His will included a donation to found a school in Spanish Town, to which a similar amount was given by Francis Smith to found the Beckford & Smith School in 1869.

Of his 13 children, Peter III was his principal heir, but on his first son’s death within two years of his father, his brother William inherited the greater part of the family estate. William had been studying medicine in Continental Europe when he was called home to help manage the family’s vast empire. Like his predecessor, he became involved in local politics serving with three other brothers in the house of assembly. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that with the cessation of the war against the Maroons, he befriended Cudjoe and even took him sailing, which ended in the Maroon leader getting thoroughly seasick.

After 10 years, William left Jamaica, becoming an absentee owner, supervising the sale of his plantations’ produce in Britain and engaging in money-lending to other proprietors on the island. He was to enter British politics and three times was elected mayor of London, at one occasion entering into a dangerously controversial exchange with George III. In 1744, he purchased a 5,000-acre estate in Fonthill, Wiltshire, and at age 47 married an aristocrat Maria Marsh. He had one son by Maria, William Thomas Beckford - although he fathered eight other illegitimate children.

It was this William who became a millionaire at the age of 10 in 1770 and infamously triggered the decline of the Beckford wealth. He was to become branded “the richest commoner in England”. Not that he had the taste of a commoner, collecting books and furniture, rare paintings and valuable works of art. At age 17, he held a spectacular three-day Christmas party that marked the beginning of a scandalous affair with William Courtenay six years his junior. The scandal ultimately drove William by this time married to Lady Margaret Gordon to seek refuge in Switzerland and to travel extensively after his wife died in childbirth.

Having eventually returned to England, he began at the age of 35, he began to build Fonthill Abbey, a large Gothic revival country house near the site of his father’s original mansion. It was to be known as Beckford’s Folly and with good reason. He hired James Wyatt, a popular and successful English architect. Unfortunately, because of Wyatt’s propensity for spending an inordinate amount of time on women and drinking Beckford gradually imposed himself on the completion of the structure.

He had 500 labourers working night and day, bribing several hundred more to abandon work on the royal apartments at Windsor Castle. He commandeered so many local wagons to carry building materials that he had to compensate nearby villagers by delivering free coal and blankets during the cold weather!

His obsession haste to erect his grandiose structure using timber stuccoed with cement for its spire resulted in its eventual collapse in a high wind on to the west wing of the building rebuilt the spire only to have it collapse again. With the neglect of his family’s plantations in Jamaica, William was to epitomise the fate of many absentee planters.

William III lived in Fonthill Abbey only a few years before having to sell it following on the loss of two of his Jamaican plantations in a legal dispute.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to